Right price for the right product? Only if you know the products well.

A gold question in the tea community

fresh dragon wellThere is a gold question in the tea community – does the price of a product reflect its quality?

It is generally expected there is a relatively linear correlation between a product quality and its price. 

I have however come across two separate incidences recently, one relating to Pu-erh tea and the other to Yixing Zisha teapot, that this correlation is put into serious test. Before event referring to the product quality, the consumers in both cases believed the prices were too cheap for the products to be genuine or of premium quality or authentic – in these cases a fair judgement. On the flip side however, it implies if the vendors were to simply put an additional ‘0’ at the end of the price tag, the products would attract immediate attention without any value added. 

It then comes down to the crucial element which is the consumer’s capacity to discern the quality of a product. It is not only subjective, but also influenced by multiple factors such as personal experiences, preference, cultural background and marketing strategies by the vendors etc. 

Premium loose teas (including all six categores: green tea, white tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, black tea and Pu-erh/Hei Cha) and certain tea accessories (eg Yixing Zisha teapots) are largely hand processed or handmade and quality graded, but not standardised. They are then traded under the ‘free market’ conditions which means the selling price is negotiated between the vendors and buyers, and highly sensitive to demand and availability.

Various efforts have been attempted to standardise the qualities of the products in order to better regulate the industry. It has however been difficult as the products are not as clear cut as for example the machine-made industrial products with a clear set of criteria to be measured against.

Summary:

Tea consumption is lifetime personal journey. It takes time and experiences for the individuals to appreciate the internal quality of certain products, and subsequently the right prices for the products.
For the beginners however, it is important to be aware that what you pay is not always what you get.

 

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Tea look matters

The Chinese traditional wisdom has always told me that ‘you cannot judge a person by his/her appearance’ (人不可貌相).

How is the look of a tea associated with its quality

tea leaf shootsI was reading a tea book (one of my earliest tea books) quite some time ago on how to assess the quality of different green teas. Each and every one started from the ‘look’ of a tea – a good tea has to have the right shape. I puzzled for a long time trying to understand how the look of a tea can make it taste better.

A few years later, I visited a family at Dong-Shan (Eastern Hill) of the Tai Lake where the best Bi-Luo-Chun has been historically produced. It all made sense after a day’s visit.

The production of DongTing Bi-Luo-Chun at Dong-Shan is still family based. Of the crops produced each year, they are graded/priced by the strict timing of the harvest – the earlier (of the spring season) a tea is harvested , the better the quality and therefore the higher price. All family members are involved in the tea harvesting, but the priciest tea leaves are only processed by the most experienced family members (the mother and father of the family in this case). The less experienced members only get to practice on the less valuable tea leaves until they become as experienced.

The link between the quality of a tea and its appearance

The link between the quality and the appearance is therefore:

The better the quality of the raw materials -> more likely to have a more experienced/skillful person to process it -> more likely for the end product to have all the right qualities including the appearance.

This is the very reason that the shape of the tea is mentioned frequently in the quality assessment, for example: a Dragon Well green tea has to be yellowish green and tight flat; A Taiwan High mountain rolled Oolong has to be dark green and in tight rolled pearls; A Pu-erh tea cake need to be firm with regular edge etc. 

Other products with the same principle

With time I understand this also applies to other products with high level manual/skill work, such as Yixing Zisha teapots. The experienced Zisha artists will not spend time and effort working on the low quality clay, and the inexperienced ‘starters’ do not often get to work on the premium Zisha clay.

 

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Should teas be blended?

Pure tea vs blended tea, reasons to blend or not to blend

With teas becoming more popular each day, vastly due to the negative health effects of sugar rich beverage consumption and health benefits of tea drinking, teashops are sprouting up daily. The new shops and exiting suppliers are also scrambling to invent ‘exotic new teas’ to attract customers. Blending (or mixing) teas is a quick and easy fix, blending conventional teas with blossoms, fruits or spices.  The question is if it is the right thing to do? Teas are ancient products, invented by the Chinese more than 2000 years ago and categorised into six main categories based on their processing methods. There are many teas within each category, each developed over a long period of time with their unique appearance, taste, production and culture of consumption.  Attempts to ‘modernise’ this product is like trying to modify and polish antique objects. Premium teas, should it be green tea, white tea, Oolong tea or black tea, are rich in their own distinctive aromas, flavours and aftertastes. They are there to be enjoyed, but not covered up. The low quality ones however are different. They are often stile and heavily oxidised (please see the note below), resulting in the teas being bitter with rough texture. These teas are often used in blends for the purpose of ‘face lifting’ in the teas’ native country China where appreciation of quality teas is highly developed.

Note:

Many confuse oxidisation with fermentation – they are very different mechanisms. Black teas are fully fermented, but not necessarily oxidised. Read more about tea quality at: Tea Quality

 

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